x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

'Marriott blast was aimed at all of us'

Pakistan's president has described a recent bomb attack on a hotel in Islamabad as "an assassination attempt".

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, has described a recent massive bomb attack on a hotel in Islamabad as "an assassination attempt" on the country's senior leadership. His statement contradicted earlier government declarations on the motive behind the blast last month that destroyed the Marriott Hotel and killed 53 people and wounded more than 260. Asked in a television interview if he thought he was the target of the Sept 20 attack, Mr Zardari replied: "All of us. All the parliament, the people, all of democracy was the target. We were all supposed to be there. "I was supposed to be there with my prime minister, with my speaker, with a lot of us. Just by chance that it was changed." His comments were in line with belated claims made by the head of the interior ministry, Rehman Malik, who told reporters that the speaker of the national assembly had arranged a dinner for Mr Zardari, Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, and senior military commanders at the hotel that night. Earlier, Mr Malik had said the hotel was hit because it was a high-profile target. The prime minister's office had made preliminary calls about holding the event at the hotel but did not make a booking. Mr Zardari has been in the United States to attend the UN General Assembly and to meet President George W Bush. His visit took place as tension between Pakistan and the United States escalated after Washington stepped up attacks on Pakistani territory after a new civilian government came to power in March. Mr Zardari has vowed zero tolerance against violations of Pakistan's sovereignty. The United States said it respected Pakistani sovereignty in a joint statement with Pakistan following talks between the US deputy secretary of state, John Negroponte, and Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi. "The United States affirmed its support for Pakistan's sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity," according to the joint statement issued by the state department on Monday. However, it is believed that a secret deal exists permitting missile strikes on foreign fighters. The former foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, revealed last weekend that a deal allows for "limited" US action on Pakistani soil. US missiles fired from an unmanned drone aircraft killed at least six people in a Pakistani tribal region near the Afghan border. The missiles struck the home of a Taliban commander just before midnight on Tuesday near Mir Ali, a town in North Waziristan. "We have reports of five dead including foreign militants," said an intelligence official. The strike took place shortly after tribesmen shot at three drones circling the village of Khusali Toorikhel in North Waziristan, a known haunt of Taliban and al Qa'eda militants. US forces have carried out seven missile strikes by pilotless drones and a commando raid on the Pakistani side of the border in the past month. Last Thursday, Pakistani and US troops exchanged fire along the border after two US military helicopters came under fire. Although both sides played down the incident, Pakistan contended that the US helicopters had entered Pakistani territory, while the United States argued they had not left Afghanistan. The United States has expressed frustration at Pakistan's military intelligence agency for continuing to support the Taliban. On Tuesday, the Afghan head of intelligence told Al Jazeera news that Pakistan did not need a military operation to tackle the Taliban but only to "soft knock their houses" in the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Peshawar. Clandestine support for Taliban leaders was underscored as rumours circulated of the possible death of Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani who was accused by Pakistan and US intelligence of assassinating the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, as she left an election rally in Rawalpindi on Dec 27. Mehsud's doctor, Eisa Khan, said he had an unspecified kidney problem, but that he was alive. Mehsud, a former fitness instructor, has diabetes and has been reported to be unwell for months. In his mid-30s, he rose suddenly from obscurity, possibly with the support of a faction of Pakistan's shadowy military intelligence that has secretly backed the Taliban. Mehsud denied involvement in the attack on Bhutto. Officials have accused Mehsud, the head of the country's umbrella Taliban organisation, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, of being behind a wave of suicide attacks in Pakistan since the middle of last year. iwilkinson@thenational.ae